Oddities hunter Nancy Smith has a passion in her bones for taxidermy, skulls and other natural history curiosities.
Every Sunday morning, Nancy Smith gets up at 5 a.m. to begin a day of shopping. She visits flea markets, garage sales, trade shows and antique stores in pursuit of items she can sell at Necromance, a natural history and curio store she founded 23 years ago on Los Angeles’ famed Melrose Avenue.
Smith finds items at every stop, normally loading up a few shopping carts with such finds as animal skeletons and skulls, antique medical equipment, taxidermy, preserved organs, human bones and teeth, old science posters and creepy dolls. She resells these to a clientele of mostly artists, educators and collectors, as well as prop seekers and set dressers servicing LA’s film industry.
All of the eerie medical equipment shown in the opening title sequence of FX’s American Horror Story: Asylum was bought from Necromance. The store has supplied similar equipment for the CBS procedural drama C.S.I., vampire paraphernalia for HBO’s True Blood and counts among its celebrity clients tattoo artist Kat Von D, Harry Potter actor Rupert Grint and members of the band Tool.
Smith does 99% of the buying for the store and gets most excited by her taxidermy finds: “California really doesn’t have taxidermists, so I have to rely on people out there who are selling stuff, where the wife is like, ‘Get that stupid deer head out of the garage.’”
An avid collector herself, some of the items Smith finds make it into her personal collection at home. “I’m passionate about old natural history prints and I have so many of them stacked in a drawer that I haven’t framed yet or put up,” she reveals. “I have tons of taxidermy, whether it’s just a duck’s head or an ostrich foot. I also have a full adult lion in my house. But the biggest thing I have is a giraffe at the shoulder mount. I have an A-frame living room and he’s in the A-frame because that’s the only place I can put him and he almost comes to the floor.”
The crown jewel of her collection, however, is a plastinated dog head, an item that may have been seen in a Body Worlds exhibit — the traveling science show created by German doctor Gunther von Hagens that features animal and human bodies preserved with plastic polymers — if Smith had not snatched it up. “When [von Hagens] was first starting out 30 years ago, I was in an antique store in the French Quarter in New Orleans, where I’m from, and a guy had two pieces of plastinated forms,” Smith recalls of the groundbreaking technique she had only read about when she stumbled upon the items.
“One of them was a human brain and the other a Doberman Pincher head, and one half of the head was the normal head with the fur and the ear and everything, and the other half was the fur peeled off with all the muscles shown. So I bought that. It was $700 and the last thing I had 30 years ago was $700, but I had to have it, so I went out and got a Visa card, my first Visa card, and I bought it and paid it off for years. That’s one of my favorite things because it’s pretty unusual and I’m pretty sure [von Hagens] doesn’t sell any of his stuff.”
Smith’s love of natural history started when she was a child studying dinosaur skeletons. She had science charts plastered all over her bedroom walls and still has an original Evolution of Dinosaurs chart from her childhood that she uses for reference. That sparked a lifelong love affair with natural history that occupies every waking moment of Smith’s life, including her days off when she shops for the store, and evenings after work, when she routinely watches natural history documentaries or the Science Channel series Oddities, which follows Obscura Antiques, a store similar to Necromance in New York that’s run by her friends Mike Zohn and Evan Michelson. Even her vacations find her traveling to the Galapagos Islands and Mount Kilimanjaro for bird watching.
“I love, no, I’m obsessed with natural history,” she emphasizes. “I want to be around it all the time. I always worked retail so I put the two together. I’ve never had any school training for this. I’m totally self-taught. I went to college and dropped out because I was a punk rocker and didn’t like the classes,” says the petite 53-year-old, who has short red hair and a no-nonsense edge to her that commands instant respect. Her multiple tattoos, naturally, include a butterfly, starfish, shrimp, bird, jellyfish and snake. She also brings her three rescue whippets, one of which is named Darwin, to the store when she’s working.
Smith has spent a lot of time volunteering at natural history museums, both in Los Angeles and New York, where she used to live before moving to LA in 1990 to open Necromance. At the LA County Museum, Smith helped a curator who was working on a project for the natural history museum in Paris that spawned one of the proudest moments of her life’s obsession.
“I worked in malacology, which is the study of mollusks — snails, octopuses, squids,” she explains. “I helped a curator and he gave me the ultimate geek thing: He named a mollusk after me. That, to me, is the geekiest thing in my life because I’m so proud of it, and people are like, ‘Oh, yeah. Great.’ But I was just thrilled. It’s in the family Bullidae, genus Roxiana, species is Smithae. It’s a sea snail that lived about 1,000 meters down, off the coast of New Caledonia, and it’s no bigger than your pinky nail, so it’s insignificant in the world of mollusks but I always hope it will cure cancer one day.”
Necromance is a lot like a museum itself. Its pale blue walls are covered with taxidermy deer and warthog heads, old science posters, animal skulls, framed butterflies and a few religious posters thrown in for good measure. There’s also an eerie wall that showcases antique medical equipment such as a bone saw, rib spreader, old glass syringes and a variety of specula.
One can easily spend hours walking through the 1,600 square foot store, expanded just two years ago, which admittedly isn’t huge, though it’s packed with glass cases full of fascinating curios, all of which Smith can speak about at length. There are gilded piranhas and mounted eastern rattlesnake heads, dried bats, cat skeletons, fox tails, lacquered alligator heads and antique prosthetic limbs, among many other eye-popping items. One cabinet holds just “wet specimens” — small animals preserved in formaldehyde, including frogs, snakes, piglets, baby octopi, scorpions and black widows.
Smith notes that one of the most popular requests she receives from customers, particularly around Valentine’s Day, is a preserved human heart, which she cannot legally sell due to federal restrictions that prevent the transfer of human organs outside the national organ donor program. Instead, she offers clients a preserved pig or sheep heart, which looks similar.
Human bones, however, come with no such restrictions, so Necromance sells a multitude of loose Homo Sapiens skeletal remains, both large and small, that Smith sometimes fashions into jewelry. The first sale she ever made — when Necromance was just Smith and a single glass case in the attic of Monster, a since-defunct, secondhand clothing store located further down Melrose Avenue — was a hoop earring with a human finger bone for just $6.
“There was no Internet back then,” Smith recalls of her early years in operation. “So I had to just call different places that I knew sold to schools because, 20 years ago, they would buy human bones from biological supply companies. So I went through these companies to get human skulls and human bones.” At presstime, Necromance’s most expensive item for sale, priced at $4,000, is a 30-week-old human fetus skeleton that Smith procured from a collector who bought it from a doctor.
Staying on top of the complex labyrinth of state and federal Department of Fish and Wildlife regulations that control the sale of certain natural history artifacts occupies a sizable chunk of Smith’s time, and she frequently checks the organizations’ websites or calls department wardens when she has questions. “Bears are a big no-no,” she notes. “In California, you also can’t sell any native California fur-bearing animal unless it’s trapped for commercial use. It’s tough to educate yourself because there are a lot of rules and a lot of regulations and anything I’m unsure of I just stay away from.”
Smith also regularly consults a lawyer who specializes in hunting and fishing laws and licenses, who she says is often as surprised as she is by their legal discoveries, some of which seem arbitrary. She recently found out, for instance, that in California one is not allowed to sell the pelt of a domesticated animal such as a cat or dog, though selling their bones is perfectly fine.
The store’s top sellers have always been skulls: coyote, beaver and human — with the latter being the hardest to come by and also the easiest to sell. “Skeletons are the only things that last,” Smith says when asked why people might be fascinated by them. “I always like to flesh them out in my head. Everyone has one, and skulls have always been big on TV, on jewelry and on T-shirts. Everybody likes them even if you don’t want to admit it. They connect us to our mortality.”
Artists frequently buy the skulls for reference, be they a tattoo virtuoso trying to hone his skull-drawing skills on the arms of bikers or a makeup effects professional looking to design an alien for a science fiction film that looks half human/half animal. Smith adds that her clientele is diverse and also very loyal, ranging from fellow collectors and natural history buffs to biology teachers looking to add specimens to their classrooms to medical students hoping to deepen their understanding of science to people looking for unique gifts.
Of course, not all people are fans of so much raw nature in their face, with plenty of walk-ins becoming horrified at the sight of all the animal heads lining the walls. Smith says she hears rumblings a few times a month from these people who question how she can sell an animal that was killed to be put on a wall. Depending on her mood, Smith says she’ll turn it around on them and ask if they eat meat or wear leather. “It’s really the same thing,” she notes. “It just doesn’t have a cute face anymore. A lot of people can be hypocritical and not even know they’re being hypocritical. And they’ll say, ‘But I didn’t go out and hunt it.’ Well, I didn’t go out and hunt these either.”
Perhaps Smith’s strangest run-in with a customer happened when a man came in to buy jewelry made with human finger bones. Smith noticed he was missing the tip of his thumb and asked how he lost it. “He told me, ‘I took a circular saw and put my hand down and cut it off,’” Smith recalls with horror. “And I was like, ‘Why?!’ I actually don’t remember what I said. Maybe it was just my face. I think I said, ‘On purpose?’ and he replied, ‘Yeah.’” The man went on to tell her about a group of people who self-amputate as a fetish and actually build an event around the amputation with like-minded members from their community. He told her, “‘We get all these people together and we plan when we’re going to do it. We have somebody who is in charge of putting a tourniquet on, somebody in charge of grabbing the actual finger that you’ve cut off, somebody who’s in charge of calling the ambulance, somebody who’s already at the hospital to tell the doctor what is happening.’ I just kept asking, ‘People do this on purpose?!’”
Smith says the man returned a few days later with another man in a wheelchair who told her that he self-amputated each toe before cutting off his whole foot and then his leg below the knee. Smith says she was polite but icy with them because she didn’t want them returning to the store thinking they had found a kindred spirit in her. “People think this is a freaky business, what I do,” Smith notes. “This is a scientific, artistic passion for me. It has nothing to do with anything dark and weird and gross.”
Still, customers will sometimes come in asking for items to help them with black magic. “It’s usually to make someone fall in love with them or they want money,” Smith says. “I tell them, ‘Go burn a green candle! I don’t know!’” She’s quick to point out she has never felt a spiritual presence with any of the animal or even human remains she handles, despite what she’s named the store, as “necromancy” refers to evoking the spirits of the dead for the purpose of predicting the future. “I don’t believe in that kind of stuff,” she says. “It’s all just visual to me.”
As for Smith and Necromance’s own future, she’s content with more of the same and perhaps a satellite store one day in her hometown of New Orleans. Despite being approached three times about making a reality show similar to Oddities, Smith has refused every time, fearing it would disrupt business and take time away from her hobbies. In the short term, she has another trip planned to Mount Kilimanjaro for more bird watching and will continue getting up early on the weekends to scavenge flea markets for items she can resell at Necromance. “I wake up every morning happy that I’m doing this. There’s a lot of work involved but I’m doing what I want to do. Every day, I get to geek out on natural history. I’m really lucky.”
Originally published in GEEK Magazine, which you can find here!
Be sure to check out Forever Fresh: The Art of Plastination!
Photos by Josh Fogel